Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows

Sep
16

Into the Hills

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Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake

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Jul
01

The Fifty-Eighth Supplement to the AOU Check-list

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Northern Shrike

It’s Christmas in July for most birders with the appearance of the now-annual Supplement to the AOU Check-list. This year, as always, Santa Claus giveth and Santa Claus taketh away. On balance, those who care about numbers will find their lists increasing. For the rest of us — for most of us — the yearly update is a chance to look into the workings of taxonomists and ornithologists as they toil to decipher the relationships among our birds.

thayer's gull 6

The greatest loss for listers is certainly that handsome gull “kind” known over the past 45 years as the Thayer gull. Jon Dunn and Van Remsen argued cogently, even devastatingly, that the research supporting full species status for the bird was thoroughly flawed, and that the “burden of proof” should be on those asserting its distinctness from the Iceland gull. To my memory, Dunn and Remsen’s is the only taxonomic proposal ever considered by the AOS committee to use the phrases “scientific misconduct.” The authors encourage further research into the taxonomy of the large herring-like gulls, but meanwhile, thayeri is reduced to a mere synonym. 

Eastern Willet

Some birders will probably be disappointed, too, by the committee’s having declined to accept a number of proposed splits and re-splits, some involving some of the most familiar birds on the continent. The willet remains a single species, as does the yellow-rumped warbler.

Myrtle Warbler


The eastern and western populations of the brown creeper, the Nashville warbler, and the Bell vireo were also sentenced to continued cohabitation.

But there are splits aplenty, too.

Baird's junco

The gorgeous little Baird junco gets its own box on the ticklist again, and the Talamanca hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama is once again treated as distinct from the northerly Rivoli hummingbird.

magnificent hummingbird

To my surprise, we also have a new crossbill species in North America. The Cassia crossbill (the English name commemorates the type locality, and is far better than the cutesy scientific name sinesciuris) breeds in the South Hills and Albion Mountains of Idaho. It is apparently sedentary, making identification perhaps a bit easier; the bird is said to be larger than other sympatric crossbills, and to have different calls and songs.

My surprise has nothing to do with the quality of the research establishing this as a distinct species: all this genetics stuff is way beyond me. But I did not expect any real movement in crossbill classification to be inspired by one taxon; I’d thought the committee might wait for a universal solution to these difficult problems. In any case, Burley had better be ready for an ornitho-influx.

great gray shrike

We also get a split in the “gray” shrike complex. The North American northern shrike is now considered specifically distinct from its Old World counterparts; its species epithet is once again borealis, the name given it by Vieillot in 1808.

Northern Harrier

Our northern harrier is also split from the hen harrier of Europe, under the Linnaean name Circus hudsonius. The name honors the employer of James Isham, who sent the first specimens to George Edwards in the 1740s.

Common Redpoll darkish

The number of birders dreading the lump of the redpolls was almost as great as that of those devoutly wishing its consummation. The resolution (for now) leaves us with three species in the United States and Canada, the hoary, common, and lesser redpolls, that last listed as accidental. The Acanthis debate is certain to outlive us all.

 Familiar at least as a target bird to observers in Middle America, the old Prevost ground sparrow is no more. In its place, we have the white-faced ground sparrow and the Cabanis ground sparrow, the former occupying a range from southern Mexico to Honduras and the latter restricted to Costa Rica’s Central and Turrialba Valleys. The two species differ conspicuously in head and breast pattern — conspicuously, that is, if you’re fortunate enough to get a good look at these often sneaky sparrows.

And speaking, inevitably, of sparrows, the American birds going under that slippery English label are now assigned to a family of their own, PasserellidaeIn this, the AOS follows the recent practice of nearly all ornithologists over the past five years. It seems likely that the name will be replaced in the near future by Arremonidae, which if valid has nomenclatural priority.

Yellow-breasted Chat

The nine-primaried oscines — the “songbirds” at the back of the bird books — have also been rearranged, giving us all a new sequence to memorize. (I understand that the new sequence will be used in the seventh edition of the National Geographic guide, coming in a few weeks.) The most notable taxonomic change here is certainly the elevation of the yellow-breasted chat to its own family, Icteriidae, occupying a position in the linear sequence just before the orioles and blackbirds, Icteridae. This is just the latest stage on a classificatory journey sure to continue for a long, long time.

There will be more to say, no doubt, when the complete text of the supplement is readily available on line. Meanwhile, much to ponder.

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Jan
18

Baja California Sur: The Bird

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Gerardo and Leo picked us up at dawn at our hotel in San José, and three hours later we started our walk in the Sierra de la Laguna above San Antonio.

Sierra Laguna

It was a lovely warm morning, and there were birds to be seen along the way, to boot. Single black-throated gray and Townsend’s warblers reminded us that we were in the southwest, and the San Lucas robin made sure we knew that we weren’t just anywhere in the southwest.

San Lucas robin

We also got to see the bizarrely dim-eyed angustifrons acorn woodpecker, and a heavily spotted spotted towhee that was presumably the aptly named umbraticola. A feral hog was a source of momentary puzzlement, and then it was higher, ever higher.

I was embarrassed at having to take three (three!) quick sitting breaks for out-of-breathness, but everyone was kind about it. I’m not used to being The Problem Client, and I’m not used to being Oldest In The Group, but I guess I’d better start resigning myself to it. At least each of my long pauses was another chance at leisurely enjoyment of the stunning desert scenery.

Sierra Laguna

Then, at about 1200 meters, Gerardo mentioned that we were at the lowest spot he’d ever seen the bird. “And there’s one now!”

Baird's junco

In early February 1883, when he was exactly my gasping, panting age, Lyman Belding set off alone for the Sierra. Belding found “the trail leading to Laguna … the longest, highest, and possibly the worst” in these mountains, “which were probably never previously explored by any collector.”

The effort paid off handsomely, however, when, on reaching the lower edge of the pines, Belding encountered “a beautiful new Snowbird,” which he dispatched and sent to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian for description, specifying that the new bird was to be named for Spencer Baird, “in consideration of [his] valuable ornithological services… in field and office, not the least of such services being his original, full, and accurate descriptions of so many North American birds.” Ridgway, finding the bird “pretty and very distinct,” obliged, concluding his formal description with the observation that the Baird’s Junco “is so markedly distinct… from all its congeners as to really need no comparison with any of them.”

We didn’t have to go anywhere near the pines.

Baird's junco

Instead, all we had to do was plop down on the roadside and wait for this most beautiful of the juncos to re-emerge from the shadows to feed in the open.

Rick watching Baird's junco

The birds were nervous at first, perching in the bushes and chacking like tiny thrashers.

Baird's junco
Soon enough, though, we had three Baird’s juncos on the ground in front of us, busily stripping the seeds from a grama-like grass and daintily plucking petals from low flowers.

Baird's junco

For the most part, all three were quite stolid, barely shifting their big feet when it came time to reach up to take another bite.

Baird's junco video

video

There was a little bit of occasional and unenthusiastic double-scratching, but never in the hour we watched them did I see the creepy shuffling so typical of Mexican yellow-eyed juncos, just short hops.

Baird's junco video

video

The birds grew more trusting as time went on, and I was able to repeatedly change my position, getting closer each time, without causing any obvious alarm. They were obviously alert to whatever passed overhead, though, reacting nervously to everything from turkey vultures to a canyon wren, and I suspect it was a flighted threat that finally chased the birds back into the dense, dark vegetation whence they had come.

Baird's junco

Our walk back down the mountainside was nothing short of joyous, a dream of decades having finally come true. Minds and memories full of the junco, we paused to look at fruiting burseras

Bursera

purple flowers

Sierra Laguna flower\

and weirdly exfoliating slopes.

exfoliating rocks, Sierra `laguna

Thanks to Bryan, Gerardo, and Leo for making this day such an astounding success. I can’t image what the rest of 2017 could possibly bring to match it.

Baird's junco

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Aug
02

Lectures and Field Trips in August

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Tucson Rudasill front yard

August is the classic time to visit southeast Arizona. The monsoons have cooled the air and greened the desert, and all the late summer breeders are singing, the “Mexican” specialties are fledging young, and northern migrants are passing through in large numbers. As if that weren’t enough, August is high season for vagrants from the Pacific and from Middle America. Who knows what this year will turn up?

There are plenty of opportunities to help me explore my favorite landscapes on earth. Why not come along?

Thursday, August 4, 6:00 am

Fort Huachuca Birds and History, with Tom Wood

Elegant Trogon Huachuca May 2007 013

Friday, August 5, 3:00 pm

Book signing, Cochise College

5:00 pm

Sparrow Tales: Discovering Brown Birds

rufous-winged sparrow

Saturday, August 6, 6:00 am

A Day with Rick Wright

Dragoons

Sunday, August 7, 6:00 pm

Boyce-Thompson Bird Sit with Rick Wright

Boyce Thompson landscape

Monday, August 8, 6:30 am

Boyce-Thompson Bird Walk with Rick Wright

January 9, 2007, Boyce Thompson 023

Thursday, August 11, 10:30 am

Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field

trop cass west thick billed left to right West Mexican Birds, museum skins 038

Thursday, August 11, 5:00 pm

Book Signing: ABA Field Guide to Birds of Arizona

Rick signing books at Cape May

Friday, August 12, 5:00 am

California Gulch, with Jake Mohlmann

California Gulch

Saturday, August 13, 10:30 am

Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field

white striped and ivory billed woodcreepers West Mexican Birds, museum skins 030

Monday, August 15, 6:30 pm

The Most Beautiful of the Whole Beautiful Lot: Birding Southeast Arizona

Lowland Painted Redstart Sabino / Bear Canyon IBA April 16 2007 015

Tuesday, August 16, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Pinery Canyon

Wednesday, August 17, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Portal, Arizona, landscape

Thursday, August 18, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Portal, Arizona, August

Friday, August 19, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Yellow-eyed Junco

Saturday, August 20, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

gray hawk

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Jul
22

Junco Madame X

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Eighty-five years ago today, on July 22, 1931, Alden H. Miller witnessed a series of events seen by few ornithologists before or since.

Collecting in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, Miller shot one of a pair of juncos attending young, Miller found that it was a male hybrid, with the back and flank patterns of the pink-sided junco but a paler, intermediate head. The female, a visually “pure” pink-sided junco, was spared.

Five hours after her mate had been collected, a new male had arrived, courting her with song and tail flitting. Miller shot this second male, a bird with pink flanks, intermediate head color, and a mixed back color.

An hour later, a third male had attached itself to the now twice-widowed female; the newcomer was quickly dispatched and found to be more or less a pink-sided junco, but with intermediate head color.

By noon, yet another male had given his life for science, victim to his interest in the bereaved female; this bird had the back of a pink-sided, the flanks of a gray-headed, and the head color of an intermediate junco. Miller wrote:

I am doubtful that these males were all unattached previous to their interest in female X…. There was no doubt of the attraction of the female for all of them, however…. No intolerance was evidenced by the female. Some of the males gathered food for the young. This indicates disregard on the part of the junco for differences in colors of sides and backs.

Any wonder juncos are so confusing?

Screenshot 2016-07-22 11.29.12

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